Major earthquake hits off coast of New Zealand, shaking North Island

A severe earthquake centred on the East Cape has shaken the North Island of New Zealand on Friday morning, triggering low level tsunami activity and sending coastal residents fleeing for higher ground.

The quake was 7.1 in magnitude and hit 130 kilometres north-east of Te Araroa at a depth of 55 kilometres at 4.37am (2.37am AEST).

It was felt from Northland to Wellington on the North Island, and on the top of the South Island. Severe reports were felt in Gisborne and the Bay of Plenty, and led to some residents piling into their cars and moving uphill in its wake.

GNS Science seismologist Caroline Holden said there were a flurry of aftershocks, including one measuring 6.2 at 5.14am local time (3.14am AEST). By 7.10am (5.10am), there had been 57 aftershocks.

Map showing the areas originally under a tsunami threat (now cancelled).
Map showing the areas originally under a tsunami threat (now cancelled). Photo: Civil Defence

Tenga Apiata, who lives at Hicks Bay, a small settlement closest to the epicentre, said the locals gathered in the motels that sit on higher ground.

“I felt a little shock, then it just got bigger and bigger and everything started rocking. Everything in the house just started rattling and falling everywhere. I jumped up and saved our TV because that was ready to fall over and smash,” he said.

Apiata, his partner and his 15-year-old son, hurried to the motel. “That’s the biggest quake we’ve ever had on the coast and I’ve been here for 20 something years. It was scary all right,” he said.

Tsunami warnings

New Zealand’s Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management issued a tsunami warning for the East Coast of the North Island (including Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty), and for the upper South Island after the quake struck.

But the agency cancelled that warning at 8.30am local time (6.30am), saying the greatest wave activity had most likely already occurred. The recorded tsunami activity was fairly small – a wave of just 30 centimetres.

People in the Gisborne district’s coastal areas were initially warned to go to higher ground, but they have now been told they may return to their homes.

The epicentre of Friday morning's quake.
The epicentre of Friday morning’s quake. Photo:

They have been warned to stay away from beaches, streams and estuaries, saying there could be “unusually strong currents and unpredictable water flows near the shore”.

Concerns have been raised about the time taken to issue the tsunami warning.

The ministry’s request for the broadcasting of the warning was not sent out until 80 minutes after the quake. By then the main tsunami wave had already hit sections of the east coast.

The ministry sent out its first national advisory at 5.10am (3.10am) but that was only about the earthquake itself.

It shook the house, scared the hell out of me and my boy. Literally the house rattled and shook – it was a rolling wave, one of those earthquakes … that continually just lifted the house

Haro McIlroy

‘It was a rolling wave’

Haro McIlroy, who lives at the Taharora Marae on Waipiro Bay, told Radio NZ that about 25 people from his community evacuated to higher ground after the quake.

“It shook the house, scared the hell out of me and my boy. Literally the house rattled and shook – it was a rolling wave, one of those earthquakes … that continually just lifted the house,” he said.

“I picked up my son and headed outside.”

Speaking to the radio station by phone from higher up on a hill, he said people were calm and the sea looked “as flat as a pancake.”

East Cape resident Aomihi Cook said her community headed for the hills after the earthquake struck.

Cook said the quake “was horrible, it was bad”.

“I’ve never experienced one like that, but it was freaky,” Cook said.

“Our homes we don’t know, we heard the alarm and we all just evacuated and came up the hill. We don’t know how our houses are but the sea looks pretty asleep to me but to be safe we’re going to stay here until we’re told to go home.”

There have been no reports of significant damage or injuries. Civil Defence advised residents to continue to listen radio/TV for further updates, and follow instructions of local Civil Defence authorities.

Tairawhiti Civil Defence Emergency Management controller John Clarke said that if people felt another long and strong earthquake, they should again head for higher ground or as far inland as possible.

Schools in the region would be open on Friday, except for Tolaga Bay Area School, which had made an early call on school buses.

However, Civil Defence says unusually strong currents and unpredictable flows could be expected.

In Auckland the Britomart train station was earlier shut down as a precaution – causing large disruption to morning commuters.

Friday’s quake follows a 5.7 magnitude quake on Thursday morning, 100 kilometres north-east of Te Araroa at a depth of 25 kilometres at 10.04am (8.04am AEST).

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology said there was no tsunami threat to Australia.